History of ICT

Just in case you're interested, here's a quick run-down of the key events in the history of computers:

1840: The Analytical Engine

Englishman Charles Babbage is often called the father of the computer for he designed an 'analytical engine' with many of the characteristics of modern computers including:

  • an input device
  • storage to hold the number waiting to be processed
  • a processor (calculator)
  • a control unit to direct the execution of tasks in the correct order
  • an output device

The analytical engine was a mechanical device, not electric like modern computers. Although Babbage's design was valid, the technology of the day was not sophisticated enough to enable its construction. (Some people give another reason why the machine was never fully constructed: Babbage was impossible to work with!)

1890: The first computer programmer

The first computer programmer was Ada, the Countess of Lovelace, who was a colleague of Babbage and the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron. She helped develop the instructions (the program) for doing calculations on Babbage's analytical engine. She has also been called 'The First Hacker'!

1890: The first electric computer

The first electric computer was built in 1890 in response to a competition that was held to find ways of speeding up the processing of US census data (the hand tabulation of the 1880 census data had taken more than 7 years!). The designer founded a company called the Tabulating Machine Company which later became the International Business Machines Corporation, or IBM. Maybe you've heard of it?

1944: The Mark 1

In 1936, a young Harvard professor of mathematics read Lady Lovelace's notes and realised that a modern equivalent of the analytical engine could be built. He approached the director of IBM to ask for money, and was given 1 million dollars (a lot of money in those days!). The Mark 1, a noisy steel and glass monster 3 meters tall and 18 meters long was soon unveiled to the public. People said it sounded like 'a roomful of ladies knitting'! It didn't actually work very well, but it won enormous publicity for IBM and encouraged them to invest even more in the development of computers.

1940s: The ABC and the ENIAC

A teacher of physics at Iowa State University built the first electronic digital computer, called the ABC, in the late 1930's. This was the basis of the ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator), the first general-purpose computer, which was developed in the 1940s to help the US military calculate the trajectories for artillery and missiles.

1951: The first business computer

The UNIVAC (UNIVersal Automatic Computer) was the first computer to be sold for business use rather than military, scientific or engineering. It was actually just an ENIAC computer in disguise. The UNIVAC was an example of a 'first generation' computer - it used vacuum tubes instead of transistors. These tubes would get hot and attract insects into the computer, causing short-circuits and other problems. Problems in computers are still called 'bugs' even though insects are rarely to blame nowadays!

1959: The transistor

In 1959 three scientists at Bell Labs invented a small, fast, reliable and efficient alternative to the vacuum tube, which they called the transistor. Their invention was so revolutionary that they were awarded the Nobel prize. Computers using separate transistors were called second generation computers.

1965: The integrated circuit

In 1965 it became possible to put several, even hundreds of transistors onto a tiny piece of silicon, which was then known as an integrated circuit or IC. This made possible the introduction of the third generation of computers that were smaller, cheaper and more reliable.

1971: The microprocessor

The first integrated circuits were designed to perform specific functions but in 1971 the first general-purpose ICs, or microprocessors were introduced and incorporated into the fourth generation of computers.

1975: The Altair, Microsoft and MS-DOS (and a Harvard drop-out called Bill)

The first personal computer was called the Altair - it went on sale in 1975. It had no keyboard or screen, just a few switches and lights, so it was very difficult to use. A Harvard student called Bill Gates bought one and liked it so much that he dropped out of Harvard and created a little company called Microsoft to write software for the Altair. In 1980 IBM approached Bill Gates and asked him to develop an operating system for their new personal computer. Bill and his 32 employees worked hard and created the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS) - the rest is history.

1977: Apple

Before the first IBM PC was announced, 1981, two teenagers called Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sold their old Volkswagen and used the $1300 to build a computer in their garage. It was the first computer to have an easy-to-use keyboard and screen. When the computer went on sale in 1977, carrying the Apple label, it was a great success, and the Macintosh computers introduced later by the same company were also very popular.

1990s: The fifth generation

The Japanese announced their intention to create powerful 'fifth generation' computers with artificial intelligence by the mid 1990s but in fact it took much longer for artificial intellignece to really take off and it wasn't the Japanese in particular who eventually got it working impressively.

The future

The development of computer technology over the last 50 years has been incredibly rapid and since this technology is going to become ever cheaper and more powerful (with speech recognition and artificial intelligence, for example) it is hard to imagine the extent to which computers will impact our lives in the future. See the issues page for discussions about this.

It is often stated that the price of computer power has been halved every 18 months for the last few decades - what would happen if car prices fell this fast?

This car above (not mine, unfortunately) is the Bugatti Veyron, one of the fastest and most powerful street-legal cars in the world. It has (in 2017) a price tag of about 2 million Euros. If the price of this car were to fall as fast as computer prices have fallen then this car would cost 20 thousand Euros after 10 years and just 200 Euros after 20 years - even teachers would be able to afford one! Wouldn't it be great if the prices of everything could fall as fast as the price of computing power???